Is one of the New England Patriots’ starting cornerbacks preparing to man a new position in 2023?
That’s what Jalen Mills’ recent Twitter activity seemed to suggest.
Mills tweeted Monday afternoon that he “really play(s) safety,” then wrote in a follow-up message that he’s “really a hybrid.”
Since signing with the Patriots two years ago, Mills has played as a perimeter corner on more than 75% of his defensive snaps. But as he noted, he does have experience at other spots in the secondary.
In 2020, his final season in Philadelphia, the Eagles used him as a do-it-all defensive back. Mills played more than 180 snaps at wide corner (227), slot corner (182), free safety (236) and in the box (329), plus another 39 on the D-line, per Pro Football Focus. When he signed with the Patriots the following offseason, most assumed he would play a similar Swiss Army knife role in New England.
“He can coexist with everyone because he plays everywhere,” we wrote at the time.
Instead, with Stephon Gilmore sidelined by an injury and contract dispute, the Patriots installed Mills as a starting outside corner opposite J.C. Jackson, then kept him there in 2022 after Jackson left to sign with the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Patriots have lingering questions at that spot, but Mills’ tweets spotlight the fact that he could now be part of New England’s plan to replace Devin McCourty, who announced his retirement last week.
McCourty started every Patriots game at free safety since late in the 2015 season — and played nearly every defensive snap during that span — and New England has no obvious in-house successor on its roster. The Patriots could fill that void through free agency or the draft, but an internal position change is another possibility.
It is worth noting Mills has seen very little NFL playing time at free safety outside of that 2020 campaign, logging just 10 snaps there over his other six seasons and none since joining the Patriots, per PFF. He was a safety in college at LSU, though, so playing McCourty’s position full-time wouldn’t be a completely new experience for the soon-to-be 29-year-old.
Fellow cornerback Jonathan Jones, who re-signed Monday on a new two-year contract, is another candidate, as he’s also seen action at safety in the past. Jones primarily played slot corner for his first six seasons but started opposite Mills on the outside in 2022.
The Patriots boast a number of versatile DBs — players like Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Marcus Jones and restricted free agent Myles Bryant all can play multiple spots, as well — and could call on multiple players to replace McCourty, their longtime defensive leader.
A lingering groin injury sidelined Mills for the final six games this season, but he said in January that he was nearly back to full health. He has two years remaining on his contract and is set to carry a $6.2 million salary cap hit in 2023.